The State of Our Culture

...Is troubled
Written by
Illustration by Micah Bazant


The arts world is still reeling from a series of chaotic blows in recent days. So we can’t blame you for wanting to just withdraw in despair as we see friends, loved ones and fellow creators and activists feeling more besieged than ever before. We are facing perhaps one of the greatest threats not only to our cultural sphere but our entire cultural democracy, in receent memory. And since culture tends to be driven by generational changes, it sometimes feels like this is both a moment that a new generation of artists and changemakers has never encountered and finds overwhelming--as well as a moment that this generation is called upon like never before to step up and pour our whole selves into exercising our rights and living our principles.

Two things are clear: history will judge this moment some day. But we also know that one of the sacrosanct values of free expression is that we give ourselves the space to go forward without fear of judgement. Democracy tests the resilience of our openness to present, past and future, to document the knowledge that needs to be preserved for posterity, and to know what does, and does not last, through the exigencies of current events.

We know that we are facing severe restrictions on travel with the “Muslim ban” and the closure of our borders to refugees, along with an impending onslaught of mass deportation, family separation and all the social trauma that will bring for communities already under siege. BUt in recent days, legal pushback has come swiftly--although the challenges under this administration of getting officials simply to adhere to existing laws cold soon trigger an unprecedented constitutional crisis. In the meantime, at the grassroots, action and new strategies and tactics are already emerging with some impressive impacts, local and global.

Chris Brooks, via Twitter, @chactivist

The link between physical and geographic banishment and the constraint of the human mind was glaringly apparent in the targeting of artists, scholars and dissidents in the travel ban that the Trump regime issued late last week. Already we are hearing of promising intellectuals being pushed back at the border, academic projects being thrown into turmoil by the threat of detention and exile, political activists being mistaken for the terrorists and oppressors they were escaping, disgustingly shallow stereotypes being used to craft migration policies that suffocating cultural dialogue. And even prominent artists being denied the chance to accept their international accolades, thwarted by reactionary forces guarding our nation’s gateways deny democracy in the name of “security.” Nothing, however, could be less secure than a nation that feels safe in its ignorance. There’s even now a call circulating to boycott international academic conferences in the US--whether or not you think this will send a valuable lesson to institutions and leaders, the proposal says a lot about the country’s position in the world as a place safe for the free and open exchange of ideas.

Suzanne Nossel of PEN America reflects: "Arts and culture are an antidote to isolationism, paranoia, misunderstanding, and violent intolerance. By interrupting the ability of artists to travel, perform, and collaborate, the Executive Order will only exacerbate the hatreds that fuel conflict and hobble the transcendent power of the arts to enable people to see beyond their differences."

On a more psychic level, we’re facing fear about how much more dire things will get--what might be historically referred to as “fear itself.” Staying grounded, keeping open channels of communication with those we trust, and more importantly, remaining committed to solidarity and mutual aid as a counterpoint to chaos and anxiety is key: authoritarianism and reaction wins when people give into silence and fear; divide and conquer triumphs when we are cowed into trenches of mistrust and nihilism instead of the self-contained strength that is intrinsic to pluralism and a rooted sense of justice. As novelist and activist Laila Lalami reminds us: "Silence will not protect you. If you think what is happening to Muslims will never happen to you, you’re mistaken. We will either survive together or perish separately."

Here are more ideas to help protect and serve our democracy--or at the very least, survive together., via Instagram, @indivisibleteam
  • Consider volunteering to contribute your skills to MPowerChange, a grassroots initiative to build and ampliy "a grassroots movement rooted in diverse Muslim communities throughout the U.S., who are working together to build social, spiritual, racial, and economic justice for all people." Their MPower Changemakers team is seeking good people who can help raise consciousness and stir action in response to Trump's crackdowns.
  • And if you have a perspective on cultural activism you can share, write for us about it.
  • Finally, if you're a "joiner," consider sharing the state of our union, from now through early February. The US Department of Arts and Culture (emphatically not a government entity--the moniker is a creative flourish) is looking for inspiration at the community level to advance real democratic dialogue as an alternative to the stultifying elite officialdom that now masquerades as governance. It is their annual People's State of the Union. (Notably, formal SOTUs generlaly take place on non-transition years, so 2017’s address belongs to us.) 

In January of most years, the President delivers a State of the Union Address highlighting the past year and suggesting priorities for the coming year. It’s a broadcast from one to many. But democracy is a conversation, not a monologue. Understanding the state of our union takes We the People reflecting in our own communities on our challenges and opportunities locally, nationally, and globally…

Every time a new President is elected, a Transition Team of experts is assembled to advise on the new administration’s directions and strategies. But a handful of experts can’t represent all of us. This year, we’re thinking of everyone who takes part in #PSOTU2017 as a member of the  USDAC Transition Team, sharing your experiences and the wisdom they carry with each other and the next President, who really needs to hear them. To help focus stories, we're offering the following prompts:

  • Share a story about something you have experienced that gave you insight into the state of our union.
  • Share a story about a time you felt a sense of belonging—or the opposite—to this nation.
  • Share a story about a time you broke through a barrier to connect with someone different from yourself or with whom you disagreed.

This year they are providing an action kit to get your own event off the ground. Here are the instructions for striking up your own local participatory art project and civic forum. 

  1. Download the Toolkit and learn how to host a Story Circle.
  2. Schedule your event and put it on the map.
  3. Host your event and upload stories to the Story Portal.
  4. Tune in to the Poetic Address. (If inspired to do more, you could create your own local Poetic Address, use stories shared as testimony for a city council meeting, or start a USDAC group in your community.)

​They have also launched a pledge from the cultural community to stand in opposition to the Muslim Ban.


In March, our partner Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco will be hosting the People’s SOTU poetic address. Last year’s address, presented in this remarkably, and tragically, prescient short, rings all the more true today, at the dawn of this new era of uncertainty.

Poster by @ernestoyerena (via @staceyannchin)
Phoebe says, I am so in pain most of the time,
I want to go into the closet and lock myself up
Just Go under my bed and hide
But I can’t
But I can’t cause I’ve come this far by faith says Marcus in Brooklyn
But I can’t because we are dealing with a crisis of spirit says Jesse
But I can’t cause I yearn for this country to be for everyone says Alice in Maryland

Oh give me shelter in this fractured Union
Give me shelter in this fractured Union
Stitch up these worn bones
Open my mouth
Rip this silence from my foreign tongue
Move this wedge of indifference
Show me a sign that I am home
Take away our boxing ring of conflict
where we bloody each other with pride and prejudice
Put out a welcome mat
Oh give me shelter in this fractured Union
For I too am a sister and a prodigal son
I’ve walked the earth and need to settle
Give me space to be
Let me be
let me be in this United Place of America.

This year we’ll be forced to rethink our "place" in America, and what it means--this place called "America." While many feel caught off guard by the election, in reality, the sentiment expressed in these circles shows that the writing was on the wall. This year’s assessment of our collective state will begin a new appreciation of the meaning of walls, and of breaking them down.

The state of our union won’t be pretty, but it will surely be provocative. And who couldn’t use a little provocation these days?

--January 31, 2017


A Message from Favianna Rodriguez

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